If you’re ever with me in a big-time crush of humanity, you might hear me say (quite loudly, actually), “I’d like to make a video game out of this.”
In the context of my recent trip to LEGOLAND Florida in Winter Haven, picture me as the lone warship at the bottom of the screen in the 1981 arcade thriller Galaga, and all those battleships above me a motley, melting-pot stew of strollers, power scooters, wheelchairs, screaming, unattended kids, costumed characters, lost parents, pooper scooper-wielding sanitation staff (oops, that’s saved for Disney’s post-parade horse mop-up crew), and yes, even a few Technicolor, life-size Legoized sculptures. It’s only a matter of time until one of them gets me. And they all see me as the sole single guy/warship – an easy, isolated target that can’t move forward or back – just side to side.
Such is the chaotic scene (unless you’re a parent used to chaos) at the “new” central Florida park, which opened October 15 on the site of the former Cypress Gardens theme park/botanical garden in the heart of Polk County’s lake country. Less than an hour from the established tourist haunts near Orlando, it’s an easy add-on for out-of-towners looking for Disney respite, and an easy daytrip for the local yocals.
Oh … before I get too deep into my review, I’ll give you the all-important disclaimer: I am single and I don’t have any kids. Thus, LEGOLAND was not built with my “customer profile” in mind. I came to the park with a general understanding of that profile, though, and visions of old Florida grandeur left over from St. John Vianney Catholic School field trips eons ago.
Much like Walt’s empire, LEGOLAND Florida is an A-list theme park, complete with corporate dotage on many of its 50-plus rides and attractions, a variety of “lands” in a generally circular formation, and a glossy, fold-out map to tell you where the restrooms, stage shows and chicken-finger vendors are. Its owner, Merlin Entertainments Group, owns other Lego-themed attractions worldwide and throughout the US, primarily in the Midwest and in Southern California.
After we deposited $12 for the privilege of parking on the property, we were guided to our space in a very Mouse-like configuration. Only one fly in that ointment, though — no parking lot trams, the absence of which is a big fail for families with little ones (in other words, for EVERYONE GOING). You may be able to pay more for “preferred parking,” but honestly, tired feet need trams and corporations need not be cheap.
Once you’re past the turnstiles, it’s obvious that LEGOLAND is a land ruled by the little ones who are obsessed with the colorful Danish blocks and their trillions of configurations. Between the established junior-level coasters and carnival-style rides and freestyle playgrounds, you’ll find thousands of untethered children bouncing between attractions – mostly between ages 4-10. There’s plenty of seating on the sidelines for the adults, who can keep watch over all the action. And know that the legalese is THICK on welcome signs, placards … anything telling parents what they can or can’t sue about because of their kids’ adventures.
You’ll also find LOTS of interesting Lego constructions throughout the park – from cartoon characters and alligators (you knew I’d find a way to get that in, right?) to a Miniland complete with to-scale cities (New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, etc.), skyscrapers and amazing animatronics (check the escalators in Grand Central Terminal!). This is smack-dab in the center of the park, and I suspect many adults harboring long-lost love affairs with ancient Legos hang here to reminisce. Even as a former Lincoln Log addict, I couldn’t help but dwell (and drool) in awe over the detail of the Miniland constructs. I mean, they even have a Lego Space Shuttle launch (complete with countdown timer and rumbling sound effects). What 6-year-old aspiring astronaut’s not all over that?
[Interestingly, Miniland doesn't depict Orlando or any of its park-style attractions, an interesting and no-doubt strategic slap in the face to the competition for a park sponsored by a CVB (visitcentralflorida.org) that claims “Central Florida” is Polk County, and only Polk County. As a card-carrying Orlando native, I laugh at this provinciality. Tampa, Miami, St. Augustine, Key West, Tallahassee and other Florida scenes have been Legoized, though.]
You’ve got three junior-level coasters (The Dragon, Coastersaurus and Flying School), an Adventure Land-like area with Egyptian themes, a Fantasy Land-like world (home to The Dragon), a water-themed area near the lakefront ski stadiums (more on them later), and plenty of opportunities to pick up boxes of those tiny blocks (stores are mainly clustered near the front entrance). I would have liked to see a fastpass-style system to reserve seats for the bigger rides, but posted wait times were generally accurate or slightly liberal. And that says a lot for a busy Sunday afternoon the weekend before Thanksgiving, when many were beginning weeklong vacations.
Aside from the kid-centric attractions, it’s encouraging to know that the last vestiges of the park’s former majority tenant weren’t bulldozed (such as the fate of Boardwalk and Baseball, just a little ways up US Hwy. 27 in Davenport, which is home to a few dozen big-box retailers 21 years later). LL’s corporate masters have retained elements of the former Cypress Gardens botanical park, which lived here from 1936 to 2009 – about 30 acres, owned by Polk County. The ski stadiums that ring the old park’s entrance are intact and entertaining with a variety of ski and pirate shows. Beyond those, you’ll find tree-lined walkways with amazing foliage, statues and placards that pay homage to days gone by, and even some Southern Belles (Legoized, of course). Sadly, access to this tract is limited, and the main access point is hard to find, the result of poor signage. Perhaps that’s just to keep the marauding kids away from trampling the beauty, so I might thank the park for strategically creating this bottleneck.
Now it’s time to get down to dollars and cents. Day passes are in Disney territory, — $75 for adults and $65 for kids 3 to 12. With an AAA membership, though, you get steep discounts – to $56 and $50, respectively, for a one-day pass. With up to three trips a year, an annual pass pays for itself ($129 and $99, respectively, for the basic pass). The cost of food also isn’t a trendsetter – hamburger platters will run you $8-9 without a drink. You’ll find a variety of foods for every taste (and most diet sensitivities, although I didn’t test gluten-free fare) between food carts and cafeteria-style indoor spots.
So the question looms: Is it worth the money? If you have children who fit the age demographic (4-10, and not kids much older or younger), it’s a standout among the region’s other tourist meccas. For budding teens who want rides that push the limits, look instead to Universal Orlando or Busch Gardens. If you want an overall theme park experience for a diverse family of tastes, Disney’s cornered that market in Florida for 40 years.
After all was said and done in seven hours (and a long walk back to the car – parking trams, people!), I have to say that I’ll be back to LEGOLAND Florida … with my child(ren), who WILL exist one day (as I calmly reassure my mother). Until then, my sights are set on the Dali Museum, Ringling Museum of Art, Gatorland Zoo and other adult getaways that don’t require trams and might not be very exciting backdrops for video games. That suits this non-gamer just fine.